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Positive and inclusive language and imagery can help candidates win over voters in times of crisis


In light of the recent US election, a Robert Gordon University (RGU) academic has taken a look back to the historic 2008 campaign of Barack Obama and examined how he used speech imagery and inclusive language to portray a vision of a hopeful and positive future.

Dr James Cunningham, a lecturer in management at RGU’s Aberdeen Business School, has joined forces with Dr David McGuire, a Reader in Human Resource Development at Edinburgh Napier University and Professor Thomas N. Garavan, a Research Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, to pen the report on their research into speech imagery by the Republican and Presidential candidates.

The trio’s report has been published on LSE US Centre blog on American Politics and Policy.

They compare the speeches of Barack Obama and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and identify important differences in the speech imagery used by the candidates and the language in which these images are captured.

The report reads: “While a variety of explanations have been proposed for how Obama was able to win the White House, including dissatisfaction with the leadership of President George W Bush and the impact of the financial crisis, the 2008 campaign might be best remembered for its inspiring speeches and striking use of speech imagery. But there are discernible differences in the use of language and speech imagery by the Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates? Our research suggests that there are.

“The use of language, frames and imagery have long enabled leaders to communicate a set of values, beliefs and ideals: allowing followers a psychological proximity to a proposed ‘new reality’. In a US context, the primary and presidential campaigns offer candidates an opportunity to connect with the concerns of voters and local communities, giving the candidates a strong appreciation of regional differences in outlook and an opportunity to build a national platform around a set of core themes.”

The trio go on to mention the significant differences which appear in relation to how the candidates indicate that they would address perceptions of economic decline and issues of corruption and special interests in Washington.

They write: “So, what are the key lessons from examining the speeches of both candidates in the 2008 US Presidential campaign? First, the contextual factors surrounding the 2008 campaign (high unemployment; global financial crisis; distrust in politics) presented an opportunity for both candidates to create a compelling vision about the need for change and the urgency to shape a more positive future.

“Second, the consistent use of inclusive language by Obama helped to generate a collective spirit-de-corps amongst his followers and articulate a set of values around unity, respect for difference and working together for a common future.

“Finally, the speech images used by Obama create a stronger emotional connection with and among followers than the more individualistic approach adopted by MCCain.

“Speech images and language can be an important toolkit for leaders in articulating their vision of the future, outlining their persona, experience and values and building a strong relationship with followers. Leaders would thus be wise to invest time and care in framing imagery and language in order to generate the desired impact and maximise their leadership effectiveness.”

Read the full report

Release by Stacey Lynch
Communications Officer | Business & Law
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